September 2010

Christopher Merkel


The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell

Readers and writers like to talk about books for readers and writers. “A reader’s book” and “a writer’s book” are the sorts of works that deserve special appreciation for demonstrating not just an erudite technical grace but also their sensitivity to the studied tastes of readers and writers in the literary know. We're not especially interested in plots (per se, of course) or lengthy descriptions of setting or character. Metafiction and literary cross-reference are our thieves' argot, and we appreciate understanding that an author knows we know what he or she knows and can spell it all out in lyrical prose. In other words, readers and writers like books for readers and writers because, well, that's what they do. 

That Chilean author Alejandro Zambra's The Private Lives of Trees is, at the least, a book for readers is spelled out in the jacket copy: it “demands to be read in a single sitting, and it casts a spell that will bring you back to it again and again.” And reading it over the course of two coffees and a Sunday morning was a beautiful reminder of the pleasure inherent in that sort of text. The language, in English translation by Megan McDowell, is simple and breezy but dense with detail, a steady trickle of sensations and memories that leads Julián and his stepdaughter Daniela through a single night of waiting for wife and mother Verónica to return from her art class. 

That The Private Lives of Trees is a writer's novel is also inextricably intertwined with its premise. Not only is this, in essence, a book about itself -- “The Private Lives of Trees” is the ongoing story that Julián has crafted to tell Daniela at bedtime and the story he tells her as they wait for Verónica -- but it is also completely aware of (and willing to describe) its own reflection in that mirror. The direction and duration of the action are given early and in certain terms: “Verónica hasn't come back... when she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure she won't return.” And so it does. And so we learn that in addition to “The Private Lives of Trees,” Julián has written a novel, just forty-seven pages written over several years of Sundays, the subject of which is also the title (Bonsai) of Zambra's only other book yet available in English. The Private Lives of Trees is remarkably self-aware. And that's a quality that avid readers and writers can appreciate appreciating. 

In that vein, Zambra also references Jorge Luis Borges and Paul Auster, just as conscious of the derivations that careful readers might want to identify in his work as anyone who intentionally deposits certain volumes on a table or shelf with the knowledge that his guests will inevitably read their value into his character. But those references are made almost tongue in cheek, and even though Zambra himself may in fact have read too much Auster (a joke leveled against Julián in one of remembrances), The Private Lives of Trees is hardly derivative. Books about books are nothing new, but for his special brand of metafiction, Zambra certainly deserves the praise he's received as a standout writer of South America's younger generation. Unlike the magical reality in Borges or Auster, Zambra's writing is almost hyper-mundane. His characters are obvious devices (each of them a “blot” on each other's story; some indelible, others that fade with time) that almost challenge readers to wonder if overt characterization isn't anything but an ugly surfeit of clumsy writing. At the same time, those same characters don't fail to be convincing -- or even charming. Regardless of whether we finally judge that each or any of the blots have made a permanent mark on the novel, every one is keenly and tenderly described. At first, The Private Lives of Trees seems full of haphazard detail. In the end, however (and that's not too far from the beginning of this short book), every detail has become an important part of an impressively tight, carefully constructed whole. 

Julián's novel is the vessel by means of which we meet Daniela as an adult toward the end of The Private Lives of Trees. Still during the night that he waits for her mother (otherwise, of course, the book would not have continued), Julián imagines Daniela reading his book once his blot has disappeared from her story. It's here that Zambra's careful intentions become apparent. “Literature doesn't interest Daniela. She reads a lot, but she only reads history books or memoirs or essays... she gets impatient with novelists’ absurd farces.” Long over the charms of “The Private Lives of Trees,” she reads Julián's novel anyway, distracted but ardent; and although fiction doesn't interest her, she perseveres to an important point: “why is it necessary to salvage stories, as if they did not exist for themselves?” Julián imagines that Daniela will read his book in hopes of finding traces of herself, the words or phrases of hers that might have crept into the novel when as a child she interrupted her stepfather at his writing. For his part, Julián hopes that Daniela will rediscover a shared past, and that everything taken together might somehow coalesce to “constitute a history, a life.” 

The Private Lives of Trees is a book of salvaged stories. Zambra draws the hard outlines of his characters early on, sets them in motion, and then gradually fills them in with bits and pieces of the past. The regime of Augusto Pinochet is not explicitly mentioned in any of those stories, but its lingering influence on Chile’s sense of history and historical transmission is still felt. At one point, Julián recalls an afternoon at university during which his classmates discussed the books they’d grown up reading, books left behind by dead siblings or parents. “But in Julián’s family, there were no dead and there were no books.” The Private Lives of Trees, its namesake story and Julián’s novel -- all of them obvious literary conceits -- are about the necessity of keeping and writing stories, and the imperative that those stories someday be read. For Julián, reading and writing are the refuges of our meanings and our pasts and our past meanings when memory has been lost in its own babble. 

In the end, well, there’s really no end, or nothing really to speak of or to ruin, because we’ve known what to expect from the beginning. But without the construct of Verónica, whether or not she ever returns, Zambra wouldn’t have Daniela, and without the stepdaughter no reason for Julián to prepare and to ponder his literary or personal legacy -- and, above all, no book without any of their stories. What’s more, The Private Lives of Trees tells those stories well. Its characters are naught but devices, but in Zambra’s dreamy telling they are enviable, funny, pitiful, moving, and even readers accustomed to Zambra’s literary games should be happy to let themselves ignore the forest from time to time to marvel at the trees. The fact of the game, though, and Zambra’s skill in telling it are what make The Private Lives of Trees so masterfully compelling. Zambra's spell casts itself wide and well. The Private Lives of Trees is an undeniable tour de force of modern writing, but one that -- even for its complexity and high-minded themes -- reaffirms the quiet and essential pleasure of sitting down to read as well. 

The Private Lives of Trees by Alejandro Zambra, translated by Megan McDowell
Open Letter
ISBN: 1934824240
98 Pages